How do you build a 20,000-square-foot building that rests not on a foundation underneath the earth but solidly upon it?
That was the task facing architect Douglas Cardinal, who designed the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. The building, which officially opens this Wednesday and will be a home for the 2,200 aboriginal students on campus, was constructed in consultation with elders from the surrounding community. One of the conditions of their approval was that it reflect First Nations building traditions, which include not "going more than a shovelful into the ground," as one elder explained after seeing the first design.
That rendering envisioned connecting the building's main hall to an extensive tunnel system linking much of the campus.
"We wanted to have that space be one where every student would pass through," said Paul Blaser, who partnered with Mr. Cardinal.
Yet the elders greeted that design with subtle but steady opposition. The solution is as ingenious as it is educational. The main ceremonial space is now at grade, while underneath, the earth that was excavated from that area is contained in a giant drum, six metres in diameter.
"As you are passing through the building, that earth … teaches you about how it came to be there," Mr. Blaser said.
Mr. Cardinal – architect of the Canadian Museum of History and the First Nations University of Canada in Regina among many others – has lent other architectural signatures. As with all Cree buildings in the region, the centre faces south. A medicine wheel on the ceiling is painted in four colours, each representing a direction and a human aspect.
Aboriginal students make up about 11 per cent of the total student body at the University of Saskatchewan, a number the university would like to see increase to 16 per cent, reflecting the province's demographics. (Country-wide, about 10 per cent of aboriginal people under the age of 64 have a university degree, compared to more than a quarter of the non-aboriginal population.)
While the centre contains support services for aboriginal students, its building sends a message to all students at the university.
"Obviously, it is a centre for aboriginal students but also a centre for non-aboriginal students to meet and be part of aboriginal ceremonies. That bringing together of traditions is of fundamental importance to the building," said Peter Stoicheff, the university's president.
As Jack Saddleback, the president of the students union points out, the centre also respects two-spirited transgender people such as himself by having gender-neutral washrooms.
The name of the centre itself teaches students about aboriginal history, said Blaine Favel, chancellor for the university and a former Grand Chief of Saskatchewan's Indian Nations.
Gordon Oakes, the building's namesake, was a former Cree chief who served as a mentor and adoptive father to a generation of younger aboriginal leaders – including Mr. Favel. Mr. Oakes thought that co-existence, between modern education and tradition and between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, was the way forward. "He believed that, as people, we don't lose our distinctiveness by being part of the mainstream," Mr. Favel said.
This year, the mainstream has responded to the call from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to increase the participation rate of aboriginal students in postsecondary education and integrate aboriginal history and knowledge into the curriculum. Some universities across Canada have introduced mandatory aboriginal history courses, for example.
At USask, among other initiatives such as remote learning and elective aboriginal courses in every faculty, the school pioneered a nursing program that has graduated the largest number of aboriginal nurses in the country.
The building represents all its efforts, said Dr. Stoicheff. "It's a three-dimensional representation of our aspirations that part of reconciliation is actually meeting and sharing."